Why I Must Leave Television / by Jahan Sharif

Senator Obama and me in 2007

Senator Obama and me in 2007

While perched at the foot of my mom’s bed, she and I, like millions of others that summer night in 2004, gathered around our television and watched the then State Senator Barack Obama use his facility of language and rich timbre of voice to masterfully stitch himself into the story of America, bridging the past to the present and proposing a new vision for the future, one that leveraged the power of institutions to serve the hopes of an evolving people.

Starting with the presidential campaign, and lasting through his two terms in office, a new class of engaged citizens would witness in stark terms the duality and limitations of progress, the evidence of change, and the machinery and interests that work to prevent it. We saw the Affordable Care Act extend health care to tens of millions, LGBTQ+ people gain the right to marry, our environment and sacred lands protected, and two magnificent and modern women appointed to the Supreme Court. We also saw the public rise of the alt-right, birtherism, the blatant disregard of norms for short-term political gains, and the ruthless efficacy and true wickedness of Mitch McConnell. 

For eight years we were in power. And for that time, millions of people around the world learned first hand what it is like when the government works in our service, too. It felt nice, and too many of us took it for granted. Today’s administration works in the service of one. 

The idea of service is what anchored the Obama White House, and in my opinion, is a value that is practiced among the best organizations and by the most compelling individuals. 

I’ve learned a lot over these 35 weeks writing to you, but one of the most transformative and recurrent lessons is the importance of paying attention. I try to be really thoughtful about what I publish each week. I want to produce content that you might find enriching and of value. Sometimes I’ve done well, but I’ve also learned that thoughtful trash is still trash. The times when I’m most successful, though, are when I think really hard about how I can be most of service to you, my reader. 

That lesson has another side, which is that every decision, deliberate or not, is in the service of someone and something-- that nothing is neutral. When I think about my time in television and who I work in the service of, too frequently I’m nauseated by the answers. That’s not to say that I’ve worked on bad shows, with bad people, or done malicious things, but sometimes my work advances people who are threats to my communities or who don’t value human beings in the ways that I believe are critical to the improvement of our culture. 

Paying attention to all of this: the news, our politics, our recent past, our potential future, and my present; and having a sense of how I’d like for things to be, I can confidently say that keeping on as a work-for-hire freelance non-scripted television producer is not going to get me there! So really, I have no choice— if I want different outcomes, I have to change. 

The outcomes themselves might still be undefined, but I am not starting from scratch. Guiding me along the way will be those two questions I’ve seen present in every leader I’ve ever admired: Who am I serving? And why? 

October 2019
Los Angeles, CA, USA